The espresso is synonymous with Italian quality, with the long-lasting legacy of the European coffeehouse, and with the snobbery and elitism that is often associated with artisanal coffee and coffee as a craft.
But at its core, the espresso is something fundamentally simple – coffee made under intense pressure. Both figuratively and literally.
Despite being well over a century old, the espresso remains a relatively modern trend for many Americans, and it wasn’t customary to see places offer espressos outside of the Pacific Northwest until not too long ago.
The rise of Starbucks and the many third wave coffee shops that accompanied its meteoric success has brought the espresso to countless American households.
Since then, and especially with the proliferation of the Internet and its ability to disseminate knowledge and tradition on a scale never before imagined, it’s a rite of passage for any aspiring coffee lover to go from their first paper filter pour-over coffee to perusing the Home & Kitchen section of Amazon for espresso machines.
Before we get into our selection of espresso machines for the day, we need to address a critically important question:
Can You Make Quality Espresso on a Budget?
Coffee can be an expensive hobby. If you want the best of anything, you’ll need to pay a premium – and it’s no different for coffee. And of coffee’s many facets, an espresso machine is likely the priciest toy and biggest investment you’ll have to consider.
Many of the best espresso machines on the market hover between $300 and $1200 before shipping. And the ones that adorn the best cafes of the world are often even more expensive.
That being said, as we’ve mentioned before, espresso itself is relatively simple. You need hot water, you need good coffee, you need the right recipe (water-to-coffee ratio and extraction length), and you need sufficient pressure.
Of these requirements, the most difficult is the pressure. You can certainly make a respectable and delicious espresso at home if you get yourself a budget machine to help with the extraction, and while it might not let you control the quality and consistency of each shot to the degree necessary for winning at the World Barista Championships, if your ambitions begin and end at making a quality espresso at home, you really don’t need that much money.
What About Stovetop Espresso Makers?
Stovetop “espresso” makers are not espresso makers. They make a strong coffee, and they do have a relatively steep learning curve, but these coffee makers are not built to produce the kind of pressure necessary to make a cup of espresso.
Espresso coffee requires between 9 and 15 bars of pressure. Top-quality espresso is also made with water at 93-96 degrees Celsius.
A “Moka” pot, or a stovetop coffee maker, utilizes water that’s scalding hot (at and above 100 degrees Celsius) while producing only 1.5 bars of pressure.
This is because rather than using air pressure or a mechanical lever to press water through a tampered coffee filter, a Moka pot uses the pressure generated from steam to produce thicker, darker coffee than a cafetiere or a pour-over.
However, it’s very easy to mess the process up and keep the pot on heat for too long. It’s also easy to over-extract the coffee or produce a burnt coffee. The result of a Moka pot often leaves much to be desired.
With practice, one can move away from sour and ashy coffee towards a more pleasant chocolatey experience, but it still falls short of an espresso and doesn’t come close to producing the kinds of complex flavors unlocked through most other non-espresso coffee brewing methods, like pour-over or cafetiere coffees.
No, if you want to make espresso, then do it right. And thankfully, doing it right doesn’t have to be that expensive.
The Top 5 Low-Budget Espresso Makers
Espresso has multiple meanings, including “pressed”, “quickly”, and “expressly for you”. All of this is embodied in a portable espresso machine, which takes the idea of producing pressure to make a cup of delicious and thick coffee and reinvents the machine to accommodate an espresso-on-the-go.
And of the many different machines and gizmos invented to create portable espresso, Flair seems to have had the most success.
Their newest invention, the NEO, is a departure from the more expensive variants while staying true to the concept and allowing you to make your own espresso as long as you’ve got your coffee grounds and your hot water.
However, we haven’t been able to test it yet. Preliminary reviews seem great, and it’s cheaper than the Classic. Definitely consider waiting for it to hit the market near you (or order one off their website).
While cleaning the Classic is relatively simple, it’s important to note that the cylinder through which the water passes through the coffee gets quite hot, and can be dangerous to touch and difficult to clean afterward before it’s cooled down.
Finally, be careful about where you’re setting up. While it’s advertised to be useful for the outdoors, you do want to find a relatively stable and level surface to avoid wobbling dangerously once you start pressing.
It’s also a purely manual espresso machine, and quite literally so. You have to put a little elbow grease behind every cup, and while that has a charm of its own, it’s important to note that if you’re not the most consistent person when it comes to applying physical pressure, the quality of each pull will differ from time to time.
It also takes practice to figure out exactly how long you want to extract for. Professional baristas take about 30 seconds to pull a good cup of espresso, and it’s much the same for this machine.
MSRP: $159.99 (cheaper model out soon)
If you’re ready to graduate from the Moka pot but don’t have the cash to burn on an entry-level legitimate espresso machine, then an intermediate step might be a good idea.
The SOWTECH 3.5 Bar is likely the best choice here, as it comes at a very palatable price while providing a step up from the cheaper Moka pot coffee via 3.5 bars of pressure.
It’s not enough to produce a “legit” espresso, but if you aren’t exactly the biggest coffee snob and just want something to get you through the pandemic without risking your life over a good cappuccino, then the SOWTECH 3.5 is perfectly serviceable.
It’s compact, easy to use, and makes both espresso and regular coffee. The milk frother is fine, and its greatest weakness is its durability. Much of this machine is designed to fit the associated price tag, so keep that in mind – then again, this issue is universal among budget machines.
You also need to consider that good espresso requires good beans, ground fresh – and that usually requires a separate coffee grinder.
Blade grinders produce inconsistent quality, even if you grind your beans to hell and back, so keep in mind that you may want to invest in an affordable burr grinder.
Most espresso machines utilize a manual piston or a motor-driven pump to regulate the pressure for each pull. That’s how espresso is made – human-powered or automatic machinery presses the heated water, stored within a tank, through the puck of finely-ground and tamped coffee.
But the Capresso 303.01 is one of few machines still existing on the market that don’t rely on pistons or pumps to create pressure – instead, it relies on steam. This has its pros and cons.
The biggest pro is the price and speed. Once the machine is heated up – and it only takes about two minutes to do so – you can easily make several cups of espresso in no time. It also comes with a milk frother, so you can make cappuccinos and macchiatos if you so please.
The biggest con is that it uses steam. This makes an objectively lower quality cup of coffee because the water has to be incredibly hot to produce the pressure necessary to press through the coffee puck.
The result is coffee that can have a burnt taste. But it’s still an espresso, it’ll still wake you up in the morning, and it still pairs deliciously with milk – all at a fraction of the price of a much more expensive machine. That being said, if you’re willing to shell out a little more cash, you can get better machines.
The steam also makes the portafilter incredibly hot, and you’ll have to be careful about how many times you use the machine in a row. Give it time to let the steam pressure go back down and shut the machine off after every 2-3 cups of espresso.
The company’s more expensive machine is also a good deal better. It’s bulkier and substantially heavier but features an adjustable 15 bars of pressure, a stainless-steel heating system, and a removable water tank.
Better yet, you can even warm your cups on the warming tray on top of the machine, which is standard practice for any high-quality barista, and an incredibly surprising feature on a relatively cheap machine.
The quality of the coffee produced by this machine will rely more on the blend you purchase, when it was roasted, and what kind of grinder you use. If you buy good espresso beans and grind them finely just before making your coffee, you’ll get an enjoyable experience with this machine at a surprisingly low cost.
It’s on the cheaper side of Capresso’s bar pressure espresso machines and makes exactly the kind of coffee you want in the morning without some of the bells and whistles attached to the more expensive units.
If you’re only making a few cups of coffee a day, then you won’t have any problems with the machine’s reduced water tank capacity (42 ounces).
MSRP: $129.99 (often discounted)
The go-to budget espresso machine, the DeLonghi EC155 offers the same basic features as other similar 15-bar pressure espresso machines at a reduced price.
You likely won’t find a cheaper machine from a similarly reputable company producing coffee at this basic standard level of quality.
The components aren’t super flimsy, it holds a fine amount of water, it works reliably, and the coffee is on par with any espresso you could hope for in most non-specialty cafes, at a fraction of the cost (provided you’ve got a reliable bean supply).
Cons? You might want to buy some espresso glasses or cups while you’re at it. This machine is not built to make both espresso and drip coffee, and it shows.
The maximum cup height is 66 millimeters, or 6.6 centimeters, which accounts for a very tiny cup. You can buy yourself a little extra space by removing the stainless-steel drip tray, but don’t expect to fit a mug in there.
It comes with different portafilter attachments for a single or double shot of espresso, and a milk frother.
Are Expensive Espresso Machines Worth It?
The kind of espresso machines you see behind the counter in cafes and coffeehouses cost upwards of $10,000, and some cost several hundred thousand.
But these are machines accustomed to producing thousands and thousands of cups a year, with minimal to no breakdown. Just as most private kitchens don’t need a massive industrial-grade burner top and griddle, or walk-in freezers, so can most homes do without spending a kidney’s worth on espresso equipment.
However, you don’t need to spend that much on a top-of-the-line espresso machine. Semi-automatic espresso machines that don’t come with fancy LCDs and countless timers can produce world-class coffee at anywhere from $300 to $1200.
Many recommend the Breville Barista Express ($699.95), especially because it comes with its own high-quality Breville burr grinder, which honestly tacks on an extra $150-200 to the value of the final product.
A cheaper alternative would be the Gaggia Classic Pro ($449.00), another durable semi-automatic stainless-steel espresso machine producing some of the best espressos in the world without the gizmos tacked onto pricier machines.
Still much more expensive than the low-budget options on our list, but with the distinct pro of being more reliable.
What About Accessories?
The machine itself is only one part of the equation for any good cup of espresso. The other two important accessories are the tamper and the grinder. Some of these machines come with their tamper, but if you want good espresso, you need your own tamper.
That’s because many of the tampers you’ll find on cheaper espresso machines are cheaply made – with a poor finish, or poor materials. A sturdy stainless-steel tamper won’t cost you an arm and a leg but will make a difference in the quality of your coffee puck. Use a scale to measure how much force you’re using to tamper your coffee – it should be around 35 pounds.
The grinder is even more important. A good grinder can cost you an additional $50-100 or more, which is why the Breville is so highly valued by many. It comes with its own coffee bean tank and grinder, grinding coffee on-demand for the amount of espresso you’re planning to brew.
Burr grinders are more reliable than blade ones for any form of coffee because they provide a consistent grind ensuring that all coffee particles extract evenly, versus blade grinders which produce a lot of fine particles and larger pieces, causing your coffee to extract poorly and producing a different result with each cup.
As we’ve mentioned before, coffee can be an expensive hobby, and espresso especially so. But if you’re willing to buy smart and spend a little cash, you’ll find yourself making some of the best coffee you’ve ever had in under a minute within the comfort of your own kitchen.